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Parents push for help with dyslexia

When Gloria Clark struggled with reading in the third grade, her parents took her to an optometrist who prescribed glasses. That didn’t solve the problem, though.

They only gave her headaches because, her parents later learned, she had 20-20 vision. She had failed the optometry test because her brain, and not her eyes, couldn’t read the letters on the wall.

The real problem, the Clarks learned after paying a psychologist $1,000 for a diagnosis, was dyslexia. Like so many other parents of dyslexic children, the Clarks struggled to find the root cause of their child’s reading problems, and once they did they were less than happy with the response.

Dyslexia is a neurological and often inherited impairment that causes people to read below their intelligence level. The school district Gloria attends, Decatur, is not required to treat dyslexia specifically, a position supported by the state.

“We hit wall after wall after wall and there was nobody to help,” said Gloria’s mother, Jenell Clark. The family couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition at a private school for dyslexics, where experts train children to correlate sounds with letters. “What makes people believe that public school students don’t need help, too?” asked Gloria, now 16. “Kids like me are being left behind.”

Decatur did give Gloria special accommodations, including extra time to take tests and one-on-one tutoring in specific subjects. But she had to learn coping strategies on her own, she and her parents say. Gloria made the honor role, she said, only because she slogs through her reading until midnight most nights, until her eyes burn.

It’s a common complaint in public schools. Parents of kids diagnosed with dyslexia say they’re not being taught coping strategies. One parent is doing something about it: Jennifer Rhett, who this year began using private funds to train teachers to teach dyslexic students to reach their potential.

Like the Clarks, Rhett got a private diagnosis for her son. She then hired a tutor certified in the decades-old Orton-Gillingham method, which, advocates say, offers proven techniques to manage the different wiring in dyslexic brains. It cost $75 an hour twice a week, but her son improved and she was impressed.

Rhett and her husband own a successful business and realize that many parents can’t afford such private help. A neighbor, Decatur teacher Carla Stanford, had recently used proceeds from a Teacher of the Year award to get trained in Orton-Gillingham at the Schenck School in Sandy Springs. The three of them decided to bring the knowledge into the public schools. They co-founded Reading is Essential for All People and, with help from private donors, are sending a dozen public school teachers through an 8-month training course led by a Schenck instructor at a cost of $3,000 per teacher.

Research suggests that at least 5 percent to 10 percent of the population has dyslexia. Brain scans have shown that dyslexics use a different, and less efficient, part of their brain to process symbols into sounds and words. The condition typically manifests in poor reading and spelling, though math skills can also be affected. Dyslexics describe a variety of symptoms, though Gloria Clark’s are common. She said words on the page play “tricks” on her: “I’ll look away and they’ll switch. It’s like they’re playing musical chairs.”

The training paid for by Rhett’s group is led by Rosalie Davis, the associate head of the Schenck School. She discovered Orton-Gillingham after studying special education at the University of Georgia and describes it as a “systematic, sequential and multisensory” way of associating letters with the sounds and words they represent.

“Teacher after teacher after teacher says, ‘Why didn’t I learn this in college?’” Davis said. “I say the same thing. You feel like you’ve been robbed.”

Her opinion is shared by the International Dyslexia Association in Baltimore. “If there is one thing I hear over and over from teachers once they get into the classroom, it’s that nobody ever prepared (them) to help struggling readers,” said Liz Liptak, an IDA official in Washington who is pushing for changes in teacher preparation. “There is a need for better training in teacher colleges,” Liptak said.

It’s a controversial subject. On one side are parents and pioneers in research. On the other side are officials concerned about balancing the cost and effectiveness of specific dyslexia treatments against the universe of disabilities confronted by public schools.

Heidi Whatley, the director of special education for Decatur, estimated that only about one in eight of the school district’s 400 disabled students had a reading-based disability. (Decatur has about 4,200 students.) The district will not diagnose dyslexia, and a private diagnosis won’t affect decisions about any special educational support, she said. Some dyslexics outperform their peers and won’t get extra help even if they’re not meeting their own potential, Whatley said. Students must perform “significantly” below average to be classified as learning disabled and qualify for special tutors and other assistance, Whatley said.

Debbie Gay, the director of special education at the Georgia Department of Education, said federal law does not require schools to recognize dyslexia nor deal with it specifically.

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